The St Pauli Red Light District and raucous Reeperbahn strip of fast food joints, cheap sex and late-night pharmacies may not be to everyone’s taste. But it’s an integral part of Hamburg’s identity, after hours or otherwise. And it’s no surprise that part of town also lays claim to some of the very best Hamburg bars, whether long-established, smoke-filled Kneipen (pubs) like Zum Silbersack or higher-concept newcomers like Bahnhof Pauli.
Nightlife in a harbour town sure comes with certain expectations, and Hamburg has no qualms about fulfilling them. But if you fancy a different sort of port charm, Skyline bar 20up offers one of the best harbour views, while StrandPauli combines a panorama of containers and shipping cranes with sand, palm fronds and laid-back beats. If you’ve got someone to impress, head to one of the best restaurants in Hamburg, then splash out on cocktails at Le Lion or Clockers. And for a breath of fresh air after a day out exploring this city’s attractions, try rustic hideaway Ufer near the Rathaus.
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Best Hamburg bars
Hidden behind a nondescript doorway on Paul-Roosen-Straße you’ll find Clockers. It may look like nothing much from the outside, but once you buzz in you’ll uncover a boozy Narnia. Talk about bringing the outside in: Clockers is a modest basement joint with fake grass and logs on the walls, all overshadowed by a tree branching overhead. Beeline for the bar, pull up a stool and order something with gin – they distill their own after all. They also host gin tastings, so check their website for dates before you head down. A little exploration will land you in the even tinier upstairs room that looks a little like a library, with leather chesterfields and an overflowing bookshelf.
This corner joint in the Reeperbahn is as integral to Hamburg as a local boozer is to Britain. Plonked in the same spot since 1949, Zum Silbersack is a popular hangout, but it’s worth muscling your way through the crowds for the bargain drinks and late-night power ballads. Ignore the sticky floors, curt service and archaic décor, and try to nab one of the few tables, as you’ll likely want to sample the typical German grub as well as the beers.
As close as Hamburg gets to the Caribbean, StrandPauli brings you true beach vibes with sand, wooden decks, palm fronds and, if you’re lucky, harbour-side rays. The tall central lamppost can get in the way, but otherwise the place does a fine job at transporting you from the Elbe to tropical island chill, complete with relaxed tunes, shabby mismatched furnishings and laid-back, friendly service. Needless to say, it’s a summer hotspot, but proudly open all year round, with hearty fondue added to the menu in the colder months, and some stunning winter sunsets across the water.
Le Lion has quickly established a reputation as one of the best cocktail bars in Hamburg, if not Germany. Behind its door-belled entrance, the two-floor venue channels ‘Mad Men’-style glamour, with textured wallpaper, wooden sheen and a palette of amber, gold and an appropriately whisky-ish brown. Though the clientele is mixed and informal, the place exudes elegance; the music is sultry and smooth, the lighting golden soft, and capacity carefully monitored to allow enough expert attention for each cocktail creation. Le Lion’s signature drink is the Basil Smash, which is basically a liquid dose of Italian summer, no matter how cold or wet Hamburg is outdoors.
While Sternschanze fast evolves, you can trust Le Fonque to stay true to its alternative roots. Firstly, they’re vinyl obsessives and will play nothing else. Secondly, the prices remain reasonable, so you can happily sip your Astras safe in the knowledge your piggybank will still be intact come morning. The exterior is mysteriously plain, if bright red, hinting at the enigmatic innards, which are also awash in red lighting. A DJ, pitched at the bar, plays a mix of funk and soul nightly, luring you down the grungy stairs, into the welcoming womb of the drinking/dancing den.
It sounds a bit USSR and is certainly more than a bit like drinking on a Cold War film set. With its sleek panelling, metallic finish, minimalist wall clock and rectangular configuration of tables and office chairs, Central Congress looks ready to welcome prominent party members, rather than edgy Hamburg night owls. But since opening a couple of years back, this conference-style hangout has won a crowd of image-conscious fans. Its round-table layout makes it a neat place to start up conversation with other drinkers, but bear in mind it prides itself on being off the main tourist trail. The drinks menu is as pared down yet precise as the retro design – think gin, pastis, vermouth, select red and white wines, local beer and coffee. (And for more vintage design, check out the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe just down the road.)
For a laid-back glass of wine with neighbourhood vibes, make your way up to Ufer. This small café and bar, right by the northerly Isebekkanal, combines rustic charm with great food and wine, and remains (so far) well off the beaten tourist track. The interior is simple and charming, if not prize-winning, but if it’s warm enough – and there are blankets if you’re unsure – a cool Riesling beneath the trees outside is lovely. Service is English-speaking and very friendly. If you get hungry, the homemade Flammkuchen (German pizza) are excellent.
All aboard. This self-styled ‘underground club station’ is a relative newcomer to the Hamburg nightlife scene but already a favourite with its kooky concept and top quality techno, electro and hip-hop. Tucked in the St Pauli Klubhaus off the famed Reeperbahn, the Bahnhof stays true to its name, mimicking the U-Bahn aesthetic from its curved, tiled walls to the ‘compartment’ seating and the bespoke bar built from original parts of an old subway. But it’s not all urban grunge and artefacts; there are chandeliers, cosy sofas and supremely friendly staff, too. Bahnhof Pauli also plays host to concerts, comedy nights, and open-mic sessions – check their ‘Fahrplan’ online for the latest listings. Want to impress your travel companion with some local trivia? The incongruously old-school police station a couple of doors down is something of an institution, having once had Paul McCartney and Pete Best in for the night.
A few Hamburg bars vie for the best views accolade, but the swanky Skyline Bar 20up – yup, that’s 20 floors up – is often deemed the winner. Yes, it’s a hotel bar, and it’s certainly more than a little touristy, but with its high perch and floor-to-ceiling windows, the view sure is impressive. For those who like to get a sense of city geography from the get-go, this a perfect spot for your first evening in Hamburg, sipping a drink on a tall bar stool while taking in the St.Pauli district, Elbe, Elbphilharmonie, and the vast harbour infrastructure that’s so integral to Hamburg’s history and sense of self. Note that scenery like this doesn’t come cheap; the prices are steep and some feel they’re paying predominantly for the panorama, with good (but not exceptional) cocktails. This is a popular place with a strict dress code. Be sure to arrive the smarter side of casual for a better chance of getting in.
And here’s where you should eat...
With gulls in the air and sea salt on the wind, there’s no mistaking Hamburg’s proximity to the sea, and for fish lovers, it’s a heavenly place to eat out. Whether you choose the old-school Hanseatic elegance of Fischereihafen or cutting-edge Japanese at Henssler & Henssler, this is a city where exquisite seafood reigns supreme.